How Jesus Became God

January 28, 2015, The Word "Christ"
I don’t say “Christ” when I mean Jesus, but most of the world uses the word “Christ” as if it were the last name of Jesus. They mean a man Christians worship as God. So “Christ” is a God-image. In discussions of religion, Jesus Christ means Jesus-God or Jesus-god, depending on your beliefs.

When I was little I lived on a farm in the middle of Stearns County, encased in a German-Catholic cocoon. I do not remember praying to Jesus when I was little. Before we kids entered first grade we didn’t know English and I do not remember learning about Jesus in German, only praying in German, but those words didn’t mean anything. I do remember having a God-consciousness, a kind of childhood mysticism. At that early age I did not imagine God to be a humanlike person. While knowing nothing about pronouns then, I think I would have preferred the pronoun “It” to “Him” or “Her.”

In a non-verbal, inchoate way I understood God to be infinitely beyond human beings. I am told other children asked questions like, “Does God have a wife?” or “Where is Lady God,” but they did not occur to me. I am sure that even in my youth such questions would have seemed to be jokes, not questions seriously looking for answers. In the same inchoate way, I must have known that references to God as “He” did not mean God was more masculine than feminine. But it would take many years of living before I would realize the harm in the male-centered pull of our language.

When the apostle Paul wrote “Christ Jesus,” he did not equate the man he was writing about with God. This elevation of Jesus happened later. For Paul, the Greek “Christ” had the same meaning as the Hebrew “Messiah” and both meant “the Anointed One.” Anointed ones in Hebrew history included the Persian emperor Cyrus. Paul’s focus was salvation. He thought all people were headed for hell until this one man sent by God “opened the gates of heaven,” to put it in common language.

Centuries after Paul was writing, Jesus became God in the official belief of the Roman Empire and therefore of Christianity. The religious master who inspired our religion was declared different from the rest of humanity. This came about in a series of Church councils called by emperors who wanted their subjects to agree on religion.
Religious disputes in the Roman Empire raged between Orthodox Christians who believed Jesus was God and Arian Christians who believed Jesus was the son of God. This vastly over-simplifies the issue but I will not go into the dozens of isms, “heretical” groups making distinctions in belief from the 2nd to 4th centuries. It must have been exciting and scary—a time when religious conflicts resulted in lynching and other barbaric cruelties. A time with similarities to ours.  More about these conflicts next time.

In my younger years religious writings exclaimed over the marvel of God coming “down from heaven” to be a man. Catholic teachings identified the man with the second person of the Trinity. Today such worship of Jesus still appears in evangelical writings but rarely in Catholic theology. There is more nuance today.
I think theologians realize that worshipping Jesus is like worshipping Dionysius or Isis or Krishna or any other image of God. Christian theology today reflects the influence of Carl Jung, Teilhard de Chardin, science, Eastern spirituality, and insights from global awareness. We now have to place our God-image in this broadened perspective.

I don’t say “Christ” when I mean Jesus. For me, “Christ” symbolizes the inner Self, the divinity within all beings. I believe the man Jesus expressed divinity to an extraordinary degree but we’re all God-stuff. In my post We Are Divine, I quote poets, sages, and religious leaders regarding this deep reality in human beings. READ THIS to get a Jungian explanation of Christ as a symbol of the Self. I think it should be required reading in every seminary.

More about Arians and orthodox next time, when I’ll quote from When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome by Richard Rubenstein.

March 6,  How Jesus Became God

I thank a friend for sending me a writing in response to the previous posts. I think it supports my assertion that Catholic theologians today speak more like Arians than anti-Arians (read the post on February 13 for a review of the Arian controversy).
Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk and now New Testament scholar and historian, critiques a book by Bart Ehrman that treats the question of Jesus’ divinity. Ehrman, a former evangelist and now agnostic historian of early Christianity, refutes the Christian claim that Jesus is God. Two expert historians of Christianity in its infancy who disagree. I think both make valid points.

Johnson agrees with Ehrman that visions of the dead do not prove anything. Trying to determine the facts regarding the empty-tomb stories is beside the point because Jesus’ resurrection transcends history, states Johnson.  I agree. He says, further, it is “the shared experience of divine power” that led Christians to identify Jesus with God.
His becoming “Lord” means that he shares completely in the presence and power of God. It is as “Lord” that Jesus is perceived by the first believers to be “God.” 
I agree with this also. But Johnson writes as if the experience were unique to Christianity. It is not.
Philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville writes of being confronted with “the mystery of being.” He is an atheist who recognizes that,
We are finite beings who open onto infinity.
Hindu writer Ravi Ravindra glories in the “Abundance of the Vastness”—revealing his encounter with Infinity. These experiences of the atheist and Hindu surpass rational understanding; they have nothing to do with knowledge in the conventional sense; their experiences transcend history.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell explains this phenomenon as the power of myth. The myth of Christ was the subject of dispute for both sides in the Arian controversy. Their "shared experience of divine power” had elevated Jesus into a mythical figure, although Eastern bishops were more aware of his humanity and therefore more sympathetic to Arianism. 

Johnson states correctly that the Resurrection experience did not happen to Jesus alone. He explains that Jesus’ divinity empowered the latent divinity in others, using terms such as “new creation,” “life-giving spirit,” “in-dwelling Holy Spirit” and “Resurrection.” Jesus’ followers touched divine power through Jesus, and they were transformed—resurrected.

As Comte-Sponville and Ravindra demonstrate, however, this divine experience is not unique to Jesus and Christians. Religious leaders in all traditions have demonstrated the same, and it does not have to come through an inspiring myth or person. The Ineffable Something has touched countless humans, some of whose stories are recounted by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Stories of Native American spirituality provide more examples of such transforming power. And so do stories of pagans worshiping Mother Goddess. Sadly, however, our religious tradition has trained adherents to despise feminine images of the Divine. Irrational and wrong.

Johnson focuses on “the question, divine in what sense?” the same question that divided Christians in the fourth century. To me his answer—that through Jesus his followers are transformed—sounds more like Arian arguments than anti-Arian ones in the 4th century.

Readers can draw their own conclusions by reading Johnson’s review and Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God. I find that theologians today write about Jesus, not as being God, but as representing God—the Arian position.


Chris said…
Hi Jeanette,

Clearly, you are partial to monistic metaphysic. Do you gravitate towards a pure unqualified non-dualism or towards a more qualified version that affirms divine transcendence?

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